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The Dreyfus Affair: A Scandalous Miscarriage of Justice

The case divided France.

illustration from a magazine of alfred dreyfus in prison, with a guard giving him food
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  • Alfred Dreyfus in prison, depicted by Le Petit Journal.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Alfred Dreyfus. His was a name that divided Third Republic France as the Berlin Wall would later divide Germany. Everybody took a side. It was the case of a century, and perhaps the most notorious incident of a miscarriage of justice ever enacted in late 19th century Europe. 

Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was an Alsatian-French army captain of Jewish descent whose sufferings in a highly antisemitic France began early in his military career. In 1892, he was a promising young soldier with high intelligence and was expected to perform well on the War College Examination he sat for. 

However, General Bonnefond, one of the exam’s overseers, had a mistrust of Jewish people, and deliberately gave Dreyfus poor marks despite Dreyfus’s obvious competency. Dreyfus and another officer who had experienced the same sort of discrimination, Lieutenant Picard, co-submitted a complaint with the school’s director, but did not succeed in obtaining justice or advancing themselves in the army as they’d hoped. 

In December of 1894, Dreyfus was arrested and accused of being a spy for Germany and selling classified military information to Paris’s German Embassy. Due to his being Jewish, he became almost overnight public enemy number one, and very few were willing to entertain the idea that he was anything other than guilty—the seeds of violent antisemitism in Europe were planted long before the Nazi Party first reared its ugly self in 1920.

Dreyfus was found guilty of his alleged crimes and was swiftly carted off out of public sight to the penal colony—a settlement utilized as a community for prisoners overseen by authoritarian wardens—on Devil's Island in French Guiana. There he remained for five years, where forced labour, poor nutrition, and abuse from the wardens had a devastating impact on his overall health. 

In the meantime, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie Dreyfus-Hadamard, loyal members of his family, and the supporters he did have in France worked tirelessly to bring him back home. They all believed he was not to blame for the military secrets being leaked.  

Dreyfus had his champions among France’s cultural elite, who employed their skills and influence in his favor however they could. His most famous ally was perhaps the immensely popular novelist Émile Zola. Zola, who enjoyed almost royal status in France for his books, penned an open letter condemning the French justice system for its mistreatment of Dreyfus, titled "J'Accuse...!" 

It was published on January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L'Aurore, and within its fiery lines Zola furiously criticizes everything from how the trial was conducted by a prejudiced jury to an outright accusation of Major Charles Esterhazy, the man that Zola and many others believed was the one truly guilty of Dreyfus’s alleged crimes. Furthermore, Zola pointed a finger at General Jean-Baptiste Billot for withholding evidence from the court that proved Dreyfus’s innocence. 

Zola had already proven through his novels that he wasn’t afraid of exposing the ills of French society, but the letter itself was a planted dynamite unlike any other. Zola was daring to attack some of the highest-ranked military men in the land.

This wouldn’t be the first or the last time a leading French writer would use their prestige as a tool for influencing political manners. In the 18th century, the philosopher Voltaire personally led a campaign for religious tolerance in France after Jean Calas, a Protestant man in a very Catholic France, faced a hateful jury for the alleged murder of his son and was subsequently executed in 1762. Voltaire, like Zola, believed until his dying day that it was religious bigotry that decided the trial’s outcome, not logic, facts, or proof. 

In 1975, Simone de Beauvoir, France’s most established female author, produced “The Manifesto of the 343,” a petition for legalizing abortion in the country, or at the very least, decriminalizing it. Zola’s defense of Dreyfus was yet another testament to the immense social power that writers in France wielded. 

Zola didn’t have complete immunity, though. He had to flee France after being sued by the War Office for the letter, but even while living abroad, Zola didn’t change his convictions. Neither did the other "Dreyfusards" who used publicity to gather support for their hero. These celebrity activists included Sarah Bernhardt, Anatole France, Charles Péguy, Henri Poincaré, and Georges Clemenceau. 

Public pressure eventually forced the French government to reopen the case, and new developments surfaced. It was revealed by Lieutenant Colonel Marie-Georges Picquart that Esterhazy was in fact the real offender and the army had indeed taken measures to suppress evidence from the court. Esterhazy was acquitted in 1898 but became such a despised public figure that he had to live in exile in the United Kingdom for the rest of his life. 

Dreyfus was brought back to France the following year for a second trial and was once again found guilty. He was almost sentenced to another ten years’ hard labour, but the French president, attuned to the precarious pot-boiling political climate, intervened. In September of 1899, President Émile François Loubet pardoned Alfred Dreyfus, but Dreyfus was still required to live under virtual house arrest and carry the stigma of being a national traitor.

It wasn’t until July 1906 that he was finally exonerated and his name was officially cleared. He was allowed to re-enter the army, and he did so. He served in World War I and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Justice was finally served. 

The Dreyfus Affair was one of history’s most complex cases, a conundrum of war crimes, politics, antisemitism, propaganda, and social activism rallied behind a single figure. It’s difficult to condense all of the complicated components into a short summary, so for those interested in reading and researching this ground-shaking trial further, here are two recommended full-length books on the subject. 

The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two

The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two

By Piers Paul Read

This history textbook delves into the corruption of the late 19th-century French political system that allowed this misjustice to be enacted and carried out for so many years. The book also examines how France as a country was affected socially by the affair, and how it effectively turned entire communities of people against each other. 

cover for the book 'the dreyfus affair'

The Dreyfus Affair

By Leslie Derfler

This resource on the Dreyfus Affair is tailored especially for students of history and includes useful tools for quality research such as primary source documents (including newspaper clippings and a copy of Zola’s famous letter), a glossary of terms, biographies of all figures involved, and photographs. Readers will also find useful timelines for the court proceedings and the names of French presidents and military personas who were in power when the Dreyfus Affair was occurring.